The Senate passed by a vote of 96-1 the spending bill for the outbreak of the new coronavirus (COVID-19), which will be on President Donald Trump’s desk by week’s end. The bill provides $7.8 billion in new funds to tackle the outbreak and another $490 million in existing funds for telehealth, all with the aim of speeding the response to the pathogen.

The sole nay vote was posted by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who had floated an amendment to provide an offset for the new appropriations with a rescind of monies for unobligated balances for international programs. That amendment faltered, although the amendment drew 16 aye votes against the 80 nay votes. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) urged his colleagues to vote yes on the spending bill (H.R. 6074), citing the urgency of containing the pathogen, a sentiment seconded by Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, who emphasized the bipartisan nature of the support.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) noted that many businesses and school districts in the state of Washington are shutting down due to the large volume of diagnoses in the Evergreen State. Cantwell said authorities in King County, Washington, are recommending that some residents, including those aged 60 or older, avoid public places, adding that airlines urgently need guidance on how to avoid spreading the virus.

“We need these funds, we need them now, and we need other states to observe the early testing,” Cantwell said, adding, “let’s get as aggressive about early testing as possible.”

Convention cancellations piling up

The impact of the virus on meetings was already being felt before the Senate vote, with the Health Information Management Systems Society (HIMSS) announcing that its annual meeting was cancelled. Karen Groppe, senior director of communications at Chicago-based HIMSS, said in a March 5 statement that the potential reach of the virus had expanded in the 24 hours prior to the decision, likely a reference to the three confirmed cases in the state of Florida (the meeting was to be held March 9-13 in Orlando, Fla.). At the time of the vote, the U.S. CDC was working to confirm a fourth diagnosis in Florida.

The American College of Cardiology (ACC) said in a March 3 statement that its annual meeting, scheduled for March 28-30 in Chicago, will take place as scheduled, although ACC leadership is monitoring developments.

CMS had created a new health care common procedure coding system (HCPCS) code for coronavirus testing in February (U0001), and has sent an email to Medicare beneficiaries stating that tests are covered via the Part B benefit, assuming a health care professional orders the test. Tests were covered by Medicare as of Feb. 4, but Medicare administrative contractors will not process claims until April 1. The Department of Health and Human Services said it plans to purchase 500 million N95 masks to add to the federal government’s stockpile, which would in turn prompt manufacturers to turn out more production.

Two members of Congress, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), penned a March 4 letter to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America inquiring into the prospects for drug shortages stemming from the COVID-19 outbreak. The letter asks for information pertaining to the availability of active pharmaceutical ingredients manufactured in China, and copied the executives with several pharmaceutical companies, including Johnson & Johnson, of New Brunswick, N.J., and Gilead Sciences Inc., of Foster City, Calif.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said on a March 4 coronavirus task force briefing that in addition to the FDA’s emergency use authorization, major diagnostic companies have decided to offer diagnostics for the pathogen. Quest Diagnostics Inc. of Secaucus, N.J., said it will begin screening for the virus March 9, although the company did not indicate how many tests it would be able to conduct.

The American Telehealth Association, of Arlington, Va., said in a March 5 statement that the inclusion of funds for telehealth in the COVID-19 legislation and a concomitant waiver of telehealth restrictions will allow timely diagnoses and treatment while cutting down on the spread of the virus. Ann Mond Johnson, the association’s CEO, said, “we are heartened by the swift actions being taken by Congress” to address the crisis, adding that the situation highlights the benefits of telehealth in both routine care and during public health crises.

Johnson said also that the CMS should implement the waiver authority as quickly as possible to ensure that health care professionals understand the requirements and to “help speed the deployment of virtual services.”

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